January 27th, 2023
‘She said that at the height of her mastery of a piece, the music emerges so naturally that she feels as if she had composed it.’

Longtime readers know some of UD’s musical enthusiasms: Among singers, Julia Lezhneva; among pianists, Yuja Wang. UD tried to score a ticket for Wang’s upcoming Rachmaninoff blowout but failed.

I love the observation Wang makes in my headline: When a genius is fully inside of a musical piece, it becomes hers.

In my own primitive playing and singing of Purcell’s song Music for A While, I’ve felt something (very distantly) like this: The notes and the emotions and the ideas sometimes flow out of you so spontaneously and deeply — in such a known way — when you’ve played (and in my case sung) a piece so many times, that the fact of a person named Sergei or Henry actually empirically sweating the thing out vanishes completely, and it’s you and this music that your throat and fingers and soul squeeze out. And shouldn’t that be what the geniuses who wrote the stuff want? They didn’t just generate a ditty; they moved a collection of notes and silences into some generous super-artistic realm of universal expressivity.

Think of what James Axton, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s novel The Names, says about the Parthenon:

 I hadn’t expected a human feeling to emerge from the stones but this is what I found, deeper than the art and mathematics embedded in the structure, the optical exactitudes. I found a cry for pity. This is what remains to the mauled stones in their blue surround, this open cry, this voice which is our own.

In great art (architecture) there is some value-added thing, some permanent, accessible … cry for pity, say; and if you enter and listen hard and vulnerably enough, you can not only hear it. You can reproduce it. You can even feel as if you are generating it anew.

January 5th, 2023
She made her concert debut at 16; at 26, he’s chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic.

Their blastula’s Fetal Prelude will emerge in ghostly notation on its ultrasounds.

December 29th, 2022
Sarah Vaughan Sings the George Santos Song

Be Anything.

November 24th, 2022
And speaking of things for which to be thankful —

There’s Joyce DiDonato’s voice, on display the other night at The Hours:

 [I]t is hard to focus on anyone else when DiDonato is onstage, often standing magnetically still. Her voice is clear in fast conversation, as she darkly relishes the words. Then, as the lines slow and expand, her tone grows smoky yet grounded, mellow yet potent. She plays Virginia [Woolf] as solemn and severe, but with a dry wit; if anything, she comes off as almost too robust to make paralyzing depression entirely plausible.

DiDonato is a commanding enough singer and presence to render persuasive what had seemed in [an earlier production] like bombastic overkill: a booming fantasy of London, a crashing evocation of incapacitating headaches. It’s only at the very top of its range that her voice tightens a bit; all in all, though, she gives a generous, noble portrayal, at its peak in her crushing delivery of lines from Woolf’s suicide note.

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I mean. If this doesn’t give you goosebumps with today’s roast goose…

November 2nd, 2022
Tár Feathered

Ol’ UD will probably see it (on YouTube, months from now), but as she scans its scads of reviews, she’s reminded of the uses of authentic criticism.

Most of the responses have been emptily enthusiastic: godlike acting, provocative ideas, serious art about serious art … Only two reviews have both stirred her and given her a sense of something wrong with the film.

She found Richard Brody’s reaction, on first read, annoying; he presented himself as petulant and peeved throughout, and UD disliked this uncontrolled hostility. In itself it seemed at odds with the sort of ‘medium cool’ tone/content she’s come to expect from sophisticated art criticism — as in, by all means be enraged/contemptuous, but serve the thing cold.

And, coming from the New Yorker, the essay seemed a predictable attack from a culturally liberal position on a conservative film that Brody perceives, above all, as a manipulative, propagandistic, attack on identity politics. (The film amounts to little more than “relentlessly conservative button-pushing.”)

 It derisively portrays a young American conducting student named Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), who identifies “as a bipoc pangender person,” and who says that he can’t take Bach seriously because he was a misogynist. 

Yet isn’t anyone – much less a musician – who tells a roomful of people he’s Bach’s moral/artistic superior because he thinks maybe Bach was a big fat dead white fart (he’s not sure) instead of the way-woke person he himself is — isn’t he all too richly deserving of derision? The speaker is a very young student, so maybe the kinder route would have been patient correction or something; but, as described, one imagines oneself cheering Cate Blanchett as she unloads on the student.

Indeed the young actor who portrays the student seems to get it:

… Max really, really understands what Tár is saying. Max really understands Tár, but there’s just these principles and beliefs and things that Max just built up around them as part of their identity, and she just can’t accept it. At some point, it just breaks. It just becomes too much. [The student calls her a fucking bitch and flounces out.]

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The scene, then, isn’t so much derision as an actually rather paradigmatic educational moment, when a person disablingly committed to a narrow position begins to perceive a broader world. Think here of a scene from Tony Judt’s memoir, in which he recalls a professor who

broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect. That is teaching.

Judt’s professor indeed took the kind and patient route; but the same problem of rigid overconfidence, and the effort to unsettle it, is there in both scenarios.

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Anyway, I eased up on Brody a bit when I read this adorable review, which replaces Brody’s imperious irritability with humor and humility, but which lands more or less in the same place as the New Yorker critic:

[There’s] something inherently perplexing about the [Bach] scene; the feeling that Tár is meant to be a send-up of a world that doesn’t exist. Or of a milieu that’s already so minuscule and marginal that parody feels unnecessary. Are there really so many pansexual BIPOC aspiring composers out there being menaced by ruthless lesbian EGOT winners? What do we get out of imagining it? It’s a hat on a hat.

Hat on a hat. New one on me. Means taking an intrinsically okay point and overdoing until you kill it. Both critics agree, it seems, that the film looks to dramatize an inherently legitimate cultural problem: the flattening/distorting/cheapening effects of replacing self-transcended analysis/social engagement/aesthetic response with petty defensive egotism. (UD‘s favorite take on this is from the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips: When people say, “I’m the kind of person who,” my heart always sinks.) Both also agree that scenes like this one implausibly stack the deck. Both critics, above all, agree that this film isn’t real, in the sense that it lacks plausibility; and – Brody goes on to argue – it therefore devolves into a propaganda vehicle.

UD wonders, though, if the real subject of this film is the auteur… rather than the, uh, conducteur. Doesn’t Lydia Tár’s absolute, twisted power to do whatever the hell she wants throughout the film (until her comeuppance) most interestingly stand for the director’s absolute power to successfully propagandize a wide audience through his brilliant amoral artistic freedom? Tár doesn’t get away with it, but apparently Todd Field does.

August 16th, 2022
A Johns Hopkins Course Features the Work of…

UD‘s late friend, Paul Laffoley. I’m happy Paul’s work is showing up in the art curriculum. But it’s never been my thing.

May 16th, 2022
Birth of the Afghan Neo-Impressionist Movement

A remarkably rich, all-female, artistic ferment is on view right now in Kabul galleries, where women painters from all over the country are putting on canvas their perspectives on the world. One group show in particular – Fade to Black – is attracting global attention and acclaim.

“It’s long past time the world heard the voices of Afghan women,” commented Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist Franchetta Settembrini. “Until now, we’ve known little of the specific outlook and experiences of this hidden population. Now they’ve emerged, to tell their story on museum walls, and I’ve found it exhilarating.”

“The movement reminds me of the famous ape artist in the Jardin des Plantes,” she continued. “Vladimir Nabokov was inspired by the ape’s story, and talked about it in an interview about Lolita.” ([“I was] prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: the sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”)

Settembrini announced a forthcoming catalogue (BACK TO BLACK: STUDIES IN MESH) featuring the most prominent of Kabul’s neo-impressionists. “Few lay on total cave darkness as masterfully as X,” Settembrini remarked. “X has the technique, vision, and sheer physical strength to place layer after ‘noir’ layer on the canvas.”

X? “Oh, they’re all X. Wouldn’t want to get beheaded, would we?”

Bidding for a single X Series painting will begin at $500,000.

May 12th, 2022
The surrealistic fires of Laguna Nigel…

… make UD think of Kitaj’s If Not, Not:

Horror among the palms. Among the blue skies and blue ponds and pools of a languid landscape. As in D.M. Thomas’ novel The White Hotel, or the book/film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the effort is to convey the world as both a highly evolved beautiful secure retreat, and a far-too-delicate entity subject to sudden lurid conflagration. Foreground, on-goingness. Background, the vile, all-arresting catastrophe.

May 2nd, 2022
Russian Exhibit, 59th Venice Biennale 2022

This massive international art exhibit has opened with surrealistic performance art from Russia: Sergey Lavrov gave an “absurd” interview on Italian television, in which he called Hitler a Jew.

February 27th, 2022
In response, the Hemingway estate has agreed to excise all references to, and depictions of, fishing in the …

novel.

January 21st, 2022
Great.

More footage.

November 30th, 2021
Beethoven’s Exhausted Second Movement Gets Yet Another Workout.

In a remarkable ten-minute propaganda clip, Eric Zemmour chooses the Seventh for his presidential announcement. Given the SUPER-chauvinistic, SUPER-French nature of his announcement, it’s head-scratching that he chooses a German composer for his soundtrack, non?

I mean, yes, the heavy-meaning-bearing second movement gets trotted out constantly — background music for The King’s Speech, background music for the end of the world — but what’s it doing in a hyper-nationalistic French politician’s presidential statement?

Obviously the haunting major/minor of this movement conveys seriousness and sorrow, gravity and dignity. It is both foreboding and, in its tenacious maintenance of its waltz-like tempo, somehow resolute. And since Zemmour’s whole thing is that France is dying – practically dead – it makes sense that this anxious sorrowing resoluteness would appeal to him. Joshua Bell comments:

I’d call the second movement the ultimate expression of despair, … especially as it reaches its peak. It’s the ultimate crying of lament. The slow movement even ends with an unresolved chord with no root, just as it begins. It leaves you feeling a kind of longing right from the beginning and it leaves you with that same feeling as it ends with an unstable chord.

Yet Beethoven is so un-French; Zemmour spends the entire ten minutes trumpeting the unique brilliance of French culture, and can’t come up with a French composer whose work adequately conveys his message?

It is not too late for the Zemmour campaign to align its values with its soundtrack. With no trouble at all, UD has come up with an equally famous and celebrated French composition that conveys, as does Beethoven’s, growing anxiety/intensity in the context of a beautiful melody. A piece that “has a pulsation that … is very close to that of, you know, the heartbeat. And … it grows in that sort of inevitable manner – something that, you know, cannot be stopped. It sort of unfolds and sweeps you away with it.”

Yes. Ravel’s Bolero.

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PS: To render Zemmour’s entire announcement totally French, we’d also need to remove his reference to Johnny Hallyday (half Belgian), and have him quote from someone other than Abraham Lincoln (“by the people,” etc.).

November 19th, 2021
It’s not ME. It’s the WORLD that’s sick.

“While his actions were dishonest and criminal in nature, he’s part of an industry sick from top to bottom where this sort of behavior is sadly commonplace.”

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Almost all art dealers commit 86 million dollars worth of fraud and then flee to Vanatu. Vanatu has become a second home for multimillionaire art market fraudsters.

November 8th, 2021
Oh. Okay.

“I would expect that [there will] be increased measures to make sure concertgoers can have a great time, but do so without getting killed.”

November 4th, 2021
‘… Abu Taif, or the father of the Taif Agreement, told me at his home in Beirut that implementing [this reform] would mean “their role will end.” Every Lebanese knows whom he means: the half dozen or so men who have called the shots in Lebanon since the end of the civil conflict. “I named them the company of five,” el-Husseini said. ”A bunch of thieves, a company of five that has ruined us.”‘

What does a country destroyed by the debauched greed of five men still produce?

Fantastic photographs. Even their captions can be versified (scroll down).

A baker in Beirut by candlelight.

Beiruti bathed in gossamer at night.

Tonsured by a barber without sight.

Bluewash through the darkened urban blight.

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